Jane Bown CBE (1925-2014) “…….a kind of English Cartier-Bresson’ – Lord Snowdon
From December 1949 Jane Bown, an English photographer, worked for The Observer newspaper photographing black and white portraits of the famous, from the world of arts to politics to Queen Elizabeth II. She was also sent on assignments and photographed series on Hop Pickers, evictions of Greenham Common women’s Peace camp, Butlin’s holiday resort, the seaside and festival goers at the Glastonbury Festival. However her social documentary work was mostly unseen until 2007 and the release of her book Unknown Bown 1947-1967.
Bown was a minimalist using the same camera, lens and lens setting and no flash – just the light available.
“I just looked at the light to the back of my hand and judged it that was.” - Jane Bown
In the early days Bown used a Rolliflex camera but later settled on an Olympus OM1 (So sweet! I have the OM2-n and I love it!) with an 85mm lens. The lens was invariably set at a shutter speed of 1/60th and an aperture of f2.8 isolating her subjects sharply against a blurred background.
“[Jane] doesn’t rely on tricks and gimmicks, just single, honest recording, but with a shrewd eye” – Lord Snowdon.
Bown was unpretentious and known for spontaneity and speed - often a session would last only 15 minutes; with no props - she simply turned up with her camera in a shopping bag.
“People describe me as a portrait photographer, but I am not. I am a hack.” - Jane Bown.
In 2006 Bown shot a head and shoulder length portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, seated, facing three-quarters right and smiling. Queen Elizabeth II selected Bown to take her photographic portrait for her 80th birthday.
A large number of her portrait photographs have been acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, London and she was awarded a CBE for her outstanding contribution to photography in 1995.
Here is a clip for the documentary about Bown, Looking For Light (2014), directed by Luke Dodd and Michael Whyte, which features Bown talking about her life and interviews those she photographed and worked with.
I am also attaching an article showing some of Jane’s famous portraits.